Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Is it time for us to rethink our attachment to "our fundamental rights", for the good of others?


On Sunday, December 16, 2012 at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA, in a sermon titled “Images of Salvation, Good News Proclaimed”, Rev. Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt made of couple of startling statements that go beyond any obvious knee-jerk reaction to the recent tragic events in Newtown, CT.

She drilled down to the way we look at individual fundamental rights (almost reminding me of my own father’s concern of my obsession with “rights” as a teen).  At one point, she said, “Sometimes, we need to give up cherished rights for the sake of others.”  Yes, “give up”, or “sacrifice”.  Later, she got back more on the mark when she modified this statement with. “We need to exercise rights in a way that doesn’t harm others.”

This does go to the “wordmarks” that characterized my first two books (“Do Ask, Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back” in 1997, but more specifically, the little 96-page booklet, “Our Fundamental Rights, and How We Can Reclaim Them: A Psychological Approach”, at the end of 1998. 
  
I don’t think her comments are to be seen just in the limited context of gun control, any more than are President Obama’s remarks Sunday night from an interfaith service in Newtown, when the president said that “We are all parents for all of our children”, and that would include the childless.  That’s getting closer to the point that concerns me. 

I did, Monday, on the “Bill on Major Issues” blog, make some remarks specifically about the gun issue.  For many middle class people living in populated areas in relatively securable homes, I don’t think that reasonable gun legislation has any significant effect on their ability to defend themselves, their families, and their property.  Most people probably don’t need to own weapons. 

I’m more concerned about the way other fundamental rights play out – particularly speech and self-expression, and the way this loops back with the degree of connection people really have with others.  The obvious place to start here is to wonder about violence in media – video games, movies, etc.  That debate will surely go on.  But I’m concerned about the way media use is related to our sharing of the relative risks and burdens among generations. 

I became a media person in the years that my former “information technology” career came to a close – through self-publication.  The legal tradition that built up quickly was to facilitate the deployment of user-generated content and self-publication by relieving intermediaries of downstream liability for harm done by users of these networks.  Speech is a fundamental right, but low-cost unsupervised distribution was a right that we invented or evolved.  In today’s environment, it is very difficult for parents to protect their children from all the different kinds of perils, including cyberbullying, pornography, violence, stalking and the like.

I have to admit something else: media for me became a surrogate for “real interaction” with people at some intimate level.  I don’t have the personal “stake” or my own “skin” in the future that others have, because I wouldn’t take the “risk” of having a family. Could that mean that I should have less of a voice now?  This gets complicated and can go in different directions.  I withdrew because conventional social competition as a male in the 1950s as humiliating.  I came to a personal truce with this whole idea and lived a productive life – leading into media and publication – without the usual social contacts and ability to share emotion that people now expect.  (Actually, the expectations of social capital and social solidarity are growing today precisely because of presentation of need in the media, as well as longer lifespans.)  It’s becoming apparent, though, that intergenerational responsibility (including some of it that gets very personal at times) doesn’t wait for pregnancy or just deciding that you want children or a lineage (maybe it does on “Days of our Lives”).  Eldercare, for example, is becoming the responsibility of everyone anyway.  It can be particularly troubling for someone who did not raise his own family.  Of course, how to get everyone “engaged”, as a “policy” matter,  gets complicated.  For example (as just one question), should we encourage same-sex couples  (“Will and Sonny”) and singles to adopt  “Wednesday’s children” just out of the huge volume of need?

Fulp-Eicksataedt also mentioned the idea, “If you have an extra coat and someone else needs one., you give it to him”.  (Actually, a gay club, TownDC, is having a coat donation Dec. 22.)  The Gospels do seem to call for a lot of unconditional, uncritical generosity without much critical screening of the “personal responsibility” of the needy person – like you don’t stop to wonder if the aggressive panhandler at the Metro stop is a scammer.  (We got into that discussion Michelle Singletary’s column about one family’s impact from Hurricane Sandy on Dec. 12, “radical hospitality for those who don’t do the right things”.  Modern classical liberalism – most of all libertarianism – place a tremendous moral (and sometimes legal)  investment in personal responsibility and personal control of one’s own fate (most of all, Ayn Rand’s brand of objectivism).  This development in Judeo-Christian nations in the West has always seemed a bit of a paradox, making the Gospel, at least among early Christians, seem Marxist.  Personal “moral hazard” has become a modern buzzword.

In my own life, I’ve had to come to terms personally with what I always knew intellectually – I can remain distant, aloof, even indifferent when others try to demand my attention.  When I was working in information technology as an individual contributor, I was sheltered from the “social demands” of the real world.  Since “retiring”, I’ve been surprised by what people have approached me with, to get involved in mentoring situations where in the past I was not welcome. (This has happened in conjunction with substitute teaching, and with various unsolicited job calls.)  That is a very difficult sea change.  I cannot make something or someone (perhaps a victim) “all right” and I cannot always share the emotions of other families with any real integrity.  I know someone could look at my circumstances and ask me why I don’t “do more”.  I can only tell you that I need to finish the personal media projects that I have started, without disruption.  It is not as easy to be effective by “grabbing a hammer” and going to the shore, or by sheltering people, as some would think. (I think back to the Cuban refugees n 1980, as well as today’s people displaced by storms, on that one.)  What I do like to think about is solving these problems by preventing these disasters in the first place. 

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